In what is now an annual service to Greenbelt goers and Christian music buffs generally, from 22nd to 25th August Cross Rhythms had a team of reviewers at Cheltenham Racecourse to report on Greenbelt '08. Here is the final version of their reviews.
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BRIAN HOUSTON - Performance Café -
Given an extended slot due to Fightstar getting stuck in traffic and not making it to the site in time, Belfast singer/songwriter Brian Houston took full advantage with a high-energy performance that mixed music with the touch of a comedian - the crowd alternately roaring with laughter and singing along with the songs (including the radio hits "Oranges" and "End Of The Beginning") drawn from all of Brian's past few albums as well as some older classics. It's difficult, in the space of a one-paragraph review, to convey the highlights of the gig since so much of it lay in the banter and interplay between performer and audience, so you'll just have to take my word for it that this was very, very good indeed.
NEW LIFE MUSIC SHOWCASE - YMCA Fresh Talent Stage -
I arrived at the Fresh Talent Stage as Electric Nightmares were nearing the end of their set. For one of the younger bands on the New Life Music showcase they have a great sound, blending the harmonies amongst their three singers. They sound like a band growing with confidence, mixing their own material with popular covers. Melodic pop-rock band Gleam Of Dawn were next up with their riff-laden sound. Their most impressive song was "Broken Down" which was funnily enough a stripped down affair with a very nice arrangement. Frontman Maic Clark hasn't got the strongest voice for the rock material but the energy is apparent and this can only develop. They need to define their sound more as they continue to make passionate music inspiring others to follow Christ. Good Question appeared onstage as the final act of the showcase, with a smart and stylish appearance defying the fact that they'd worn the same now unwashed and slightly muddy clothes at two other gigs. They were ready for a good time despite the palpable tiredness of the festival-goers, and gradually won the audience with a rock version of Beyonce's "Crazy In Love". The drummer is an absolute livewire, seemingly using every possible bone and muscle to rock out while singing along in the seemingly insignificant absence of a microphone. Along with their anthemic new single "Be A Star", it made Good Question a joy to watch, and proved the showcase of bands from North-East organisation New Life Music to be a worthy addition to the ever-expanding Greenbelt programme.
MARTIN JOSEPH - Centaur - 2.15pm
The sense of anticipation and excitement were palpable as I joined the back of a monster queue for Joseph's Greenbelt set for this year. Struggling to find a space to sit myself in the packed out Centaur, Joseph was already two songs into his set by the time the stewards had crammed us in, and there were still at least 200 people behind us. Happily, Joseph didn't disappoint. It was a faultless example of how one boyo armed with a guitar, a harmonica and a bottle of water can hold 3000 people in the palm of his hand. Martin is more on top of his game than ever - his confidence, storytelling and sense of humour shone through and he interacted with his audience in a way that carried all the intimacy of a gig in the Underground or Performance Cafe - I forgot for a moment that I was in the balcony of Greenbelt's second largest venue. The set was peppered with new material as well as favourites from the back-catalogue. "Can't Breathe", well suited to the acoustic treatment, captivated the audience; from gentle verse to intense conclusion it's a masterclass in honest songwriting. "Turn Me Tender", also from the 'Deep Blue' album, was the most delicate of touches after his classic, emotion filled cover of Joan Osbourne's "What If God Was One Of Us?" (he recently shared a bill with Osbourne at a Canadian musical festival, but refrained from showing her how to play her own song). The set ended with the title track from new album 'Vegas' - it's a song that carries a great story behind it, plenty of energy and fun, Elvis homages, and a singalong chorus which is sure to be an audience favourite in future shows. Martin also figures that he's the second Welshman ever, after Tom Jones, to play a Vegas casino - true or not, it's a great claim that raised a laugh and some patriotic cries from the Welsh contingent. Martin spoke of "coming home" to Greenbelt after a busy summer schedule and that pleasure was evident in his heartfelt performance. With exquisite guitar playing and lyrics that are as deep and intelligent, scathing and political as anything Bob Dylan ever wrote, Wales' favourite poet gave his audience the show they hoped for.
A FAILED PERFECTION - Underground - Monday 2.35pm
One of my highlights from last year's Greenbelt had to be one of Redemption Awaits' last ever shows before disbanding. From the ashes of that fine technical melodic hardcore act came A Failed Perfection with half of this band having played in Redemption Awaits. More of the melodic and less of the hardcore and you can actually start to see a few loose comparisons. They'll hate me for saying this but these guys perhaps better fit into the emo mould, whilst still maintaining a reasonable degree of individual identity and ingenuity. A few months back I got hold of their début EP, which was a fairly rough and ready live recording of their early material. Most of those songs have survived, albeit with a tweak here and there, bolstered by some strong newer material. The beauty of this type of music is that it really does nicely fit the emotive and heartfelt lyrics which seep out of each song. They didn't perhaps boast the finest melodic vocals but a decent scream here or there allowed a nice balance of quiet and loud. A Failed Perfection are clearly a band still on the learning curve before their first full release but already they've established their own sound. Things look good for the future.
BACK POCKET PROPHET - Underground - 3.20pm
Last year I started my review of this band with this blatantly obvious sentence, "This is obviously a band who love their metal" and ended it by saying, "This is a band that feels like it's in its infancy but could well mature into a very savage and powerful beast." Firstly, I must stop using the phrase "this is a band" quite so often, of course they're a band, but secondly the first quote remains completely valid and the second quote/prophecy is really starting to take shape. A line-up change since last year sees the guitarist and bassist share vocal duties after their lead singer left late last year (don't worry, it was all amicable). So less of the cookie-monster vocals and more of your typical thrash metal lead vocals teamed with grunting backing vocals. The more thrashy vocals have been met with a more thrashy sound overall, clearly doing what they love to do most. Their new material is their strongest yet, always a good indication that things are going in the right direction. In an interview I asked them who they'd most like to gig with, bands like Iron Maiden, Metallica and Megadeth were highest on the wish list. It's fairly clear that these guys have been born 20 years too late! Without doubt the highlight of this full on metal assault was their introduction of the conga-mosh and then Vic joining us in the crowd to join in with the fun. An entertaining set for metal fans allowing themselves an indulgence into the old school sound.
ESTHER ALEXANDER - Performance Café -
Esther Alexander has the kind of voice and style of songs that were seemingly made for this type of intimate yet relaxed setting. Ably accompanied by Dave Clifton on guitar, Esther treated us to a selection of songs from her latest album, 'Last Of The Hopeless Romantics', as well as dipping into her back catalogue of soul-tinged R&B to provide the appreciative audience with a relaxing afternoon's listening.
DESERT SUN - Underground - 4.05pm
The Meltdown stage seems to be more varied this year with hardcore, punk, thrash and now a classic old school metal band similar to Alice in Chains mixed with Deep Purple. Desert Sun are from Birmingham and have been together for nearly two years, of which 18 months were spent rehearsing before playing any gigs. They are already attracting the interest of a couple of record labels. This isn't as surprising as it may seem. Who would have predicted that Def Leppard would do a sell-out tour! Desert Sun has come along just at the right time to fill a gap in the hard music scene. Kev (drums) and Andy Greaves (bass) cut their teeth in Gen, who released one awesome album 'Rite Of Refusal' before disappearing. They are joined by Joff Williams (rhythm guitar) and Steve Cumberland (lead guitar and vocals) to make a groove based band firing on all four cylinders. "Souperman" starts off with a riff before the rest of the band kicks in with driving mid-paced hard rock. It's great to hear songs that give plenty of space to hear the ample guitar licks in "Final Game". They finish off with "Whitesnake" which I can almost imagine speeding along to, in an open topped car with wind blowing in my hair.
KASHEE OPEIAH - Underground - 4.50pm
It's rather sad that for a good number of the crowd watching a fine display of German progressive hardcore, they're most likely to remember what happened at the end of the band's set. Prior to a rather strong-handed eviction of a hardcore kid wanting to express himself by dancing as a hardcore kid might, the band brought a glorious conclusion to this year's input from Meltdown Ministries. They were hard and heavy, as all good hardcore should be, but with lovely delicate and progressive touches showing just how high their musicianship was. To their detriment I don't think I'd necessarily recognise a single song of theirs if I heard it again but I doubt that is something that will worry them greatly. With a sound akin to the softer side of the noisecore movement, you'd assume that bands like Norma Jean, Zao and Glassjaw would pay a fairly heavy influence. But these guys take the music further on to create large musical soundscapes. Whilst they may not be any technically better than the noisecore big boys, they do seem more willing to bring more melody and diversity to the pace and direction of their sound. I wouldn't say they took my breath away in terms of the outcome of their experimentation but I was still impressed that they at least tried. Some nice moments mixed with some crushing beatdowns, one of the better bands to grace the Underground stage this year.
MXPX - Mainstage - 8:10pm
For a band that have been around for over 15 years, it's somewhat surprising that this was the first appearance at Greenbelt (as one stop on a UK tour to promote the latest album, 'Secret Weapon') for the boys from Bremerton. No surprise then, that when lead singer Mike Herrera asked how many in the crowd had seen them live before, only a handful responded in the affirmative. But that didn't seem to be a problem, as the band have a strong UK following - a sizable proportion of the audience were familiar enough with the pop-punk songs to take the opportunity offered by their first-time MxPx gig to sing along heartily to a selection of tracks from 'Secret Weapon', as well as classics from previous releases such as the radio hit "Heard That Sound" and the set's closer, the evergreen "Punk Rawk Show". And, I have to confess, it was nice to have a band on Mainstage at Greenbelt who were there just to have fun, and give the audience a good time, rather than using the stage as a platform to preach religion and/or politics. Not that there's anything wrong with religion and politics, but for the closing night of the weekend most of the crowd just wanted to let their hair down and Herrera matched the mood with a proclamation that "a festival is all about enjoying yourself". Amen to that, brother.
FIGHTSTAR - Mainstage - 9.35pm
When Charlie Simpson announced that he was going to leave Busted as he wanted to be in a "real" metal band, we were all skeptical. Since then Fightstar have released 'Grand Unification', 'One Day Son, This Will All Be Yours' and a covers album 'Alternate Endings' of post-hardcore, emo-rock often compared to Biffy Cyclo. Having worked so hard on their new career, I suppose that Fightstar need to keep their credibility in the metal scene. So it wasn't too much of a surprise when the drummer did the double handed "horns" gesture when he came onstage. But I can envisage some parents writing in to Greenbelt to complain that this wasn't suitable or acceptable for a Christian festival. The crowd were already hyped up from MxPx, but the stewards were not allowing crowd surfing and also frowned upon anyone forming a mosh pit. They stormed through "Palahniuks Laughter", "99", "Grand Unification Part 1", "We Apologise For Nothing", "I Am The Message", "Amaze Us" and "Build An Army". Then they subjected us to an acoustic version of The Cure's "Inbetween Days". Unfortunately, Charlie does not have the vocal range to carry this off convincingly. After another acoustic song, "Amethyst", they launched off again at what they do best with some of their more extreme material "Tannhauser Gate", "Waste A Moment", "Paint Your Target" and "Deathcar". They left the stage to return with "Mono" as the encore. Personally, I enjoyed their performance, though I suspect that Fightstar's set was simply too heavy for many in the crowd.